Album Review: Villagers – {Awayland}

Second albums are never easy. They are even less easy when your debut LP was Mercury prize nominated Becoming a Jackal. This is, however, the reality that faces Conor O’Brien of Villagers. After a year in the studio the result is {Awayland} and it is truly sublime. Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien has taken the existential angst of Becoming a Jackal on a trip to the seaside and in doing so, he has given Villagers a more all round and mature sound.

The album opens with Conor O’Brien inviting the listener on a trip to his lighthouse in ‘My Lighthouse’. This track does not deliver any surprises to listeners familiar with Becoming a Jackal, as O’Brien’s voice is only backed up by an acoustic guitar and he invites the listener to listen to his stories.

Once this prologue is out of the way, Villagers immediately deliver a surprise as their sound expands into a much more collective effort in ‘Earthly Pleasures’, but there is no surprise in the fact that Villagers’ lyrics are still as absurd and incomprehensible as a Salvador Dalí painting. Conor O’Brien has always taken the real and made a surreal post-modernist tale out of it, much like the Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  ‘Earthly Pleasures’ is no different – it opens with a man who is “naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth/when he suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt”, before the subject of the song is transported to 1822 in his moments of doubt and is greeted by a bizarre figure: “there he was in front of her divine simplicity/and she was speaking Esperanto and drinking Ginger Tea”. Conor O’Brien’s ability to transport the listener from a very real human idea of self-doubt to a surreal landscape is remarkable, especially when the song is backed up by a very strong rhythm to make the song a highlight of the album.

Conor O’Brien then transports the listener back to his lighthouse with the lead track from the album: ‘The Waves’. This track surprised most Villagers fans when it was first played in late August, because it contains a much more electronic beat than Villagers have ever used before. The track shouldn’t really surprise the listener though because Villagers songs have always worked because of the strong rhythm  in line with Conor O’Brien’s voice and ‘The Waves’ is no different to this. After O’Brien discusses the subjectivity of language and vision, as you do, the song reaches a thundering climax not dissimilar to that which comes with the live performance of their debut album track ‘Pieces’.

The fact that {Awayland} is a much more communal effort for Villagers is emphasised by ‘Judgement Call’, which follows this. The sound builds as layers are added by O’Brien’s backing band and the song starts to take on a sound that Villagers fans will most identify with Villagers’ mesmerising live shows.

The listener is then treated to ‘Nothing Arrived’, which sounds just like it comes from Becoming a Jackal and is a very strong track because of it. O’Brien takes a nihilistic situation: “I waited for something and something died/So I waited for nothing and nothing arrived” and turns the song into a love song to nothing. This might sound incredibly morbid, but this is bizarrely not the case, the song develops into a pleasant sounding love song; it just happens to be a love song dedicated to the concept of nothing.

This is followed by ‘The Bell’, which barely sounds like a new Villagers track, because it has been a staple of Villagers’ live shows for almost two years now. It will still be pleasing for fans of Villagers to finally have a studio recording of this song and I have been informed by first time listeners that it is “rather catchy”, so it is a welcome addition to the album.

Villagers then give the listener a haunting musical interlude with the title track of the album, which sounds like it’s been recorded on a ghost ship, somewhere in the misty distance from the lighthouse that O’Brien has taken us on a journey to.

The staccato drums of ‘Passing a Message’ signal the end of the interlude and the return of normal service on the album. O’Brien again takes a potentially downbeat element of the human condition and adapts it into an uplifting message. This time he talks about how we lose part of our identity as we evolve and develop as people, but “it takes loss to be free”, thus inferring that we ultimately become more liberated from the evolution of personalities.

The album then takes a slower turn with ‘Grateful Song’, which builds to a sweeping climax more akin to Elbow than Villagers. This, again, shows that Villagers’ sound has broadened on this album thanks to the band, rather than Conor O’Brien being the central focus.

The following track: ‘In a Newfound Land You Are Free’ has baffled me since I started listening to {Awayland}. I find myself constantly returning to the song to try and make sense of the lyrics – it is unclear what kind of new born child the lyrics refer to – a new born child “with the eyes of a Saint and the soul of a thief”. There are several possible interpretations, but none of them seem adequate, so the song currently just has the intrigue for me personally of being a mystifying ballad.

{Awayland} finishes with ‘Rhythm Composer’, which is Conor O’Brien’s ode to songwriting, with inevitably mythical language. He sings of an old black dog that he struggles to tame, whilst being backed up by the catchy rhythm that makes Villagers so unique. As the song fades the sound of waves and seagulls signal the end of our trip to the beach with Villagers and you immediately want to hit that repeat button.

It is for this reason that {Awayland} is such a special album. Conor O’Brien is still writing lyrics that make the listener want to revisit the album to try and make sense of his surrealism, but he is now backed up by a much tighter band. {Awayland} successfully quashes any fears of second album syndrome by keeping the listener interested with an expanded sound from the first album, but Villagers are still doing all the things that they did right on their debut album. Conor O’Brien said that his New Year’s resolution was to “try not to pretend to journalists that I know what I’m doing”. He may not know what he’s doing, but he’s still doing it exceptionally well: {Awayland} is gloriously mystifying and magical in equal measure.

Liam Coleman

…Liam has been listening to Frank Sinatra – My Way…

One Comment
  • Keyworth
    15 January 2013 at 15:25
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    A review or a literature essay? I do not know.

    But I like it!

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